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Authors: Stuart Jaffe

Tags: #Magic, #xena, #blues, #apocalypse, #tattoos, #katana

The Way of the Sword and Gun (9 page)

BOOK: The Way of the Sword and Gun
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"Nonsense. You've lived out here on your own and this is a truly dangerous world. I don't see how you manage to handle it."

Fawbry nodded forward. "I have her."

 

* * * *

 

When the dawn arrived, Malja kicked her horse into a gallop and the others followed. The exhilaration of speeding across the Penmarvian landscape blotted out all of Owl's concerns. He concentrated on keeping control of the horse and enjoying the rush of air against his face. It was something the Masters had taught him — savor the immediate moments of one's life. Times to worry always come eventually.

Not only did such wisdom prove to be freeing to Owl's tensions, but focusing on the immediate moment made the morning soar by as fast as the horses galloped. When Malja raised a hand to slow the group, Owl eased back in his saddle. His thighs ached and his body had become slick with sweat.

A small stream curved nearby, and they let the horses drink up and rest. As Owl filled his canteen with water upstream from the horses, he heard a rider approach. Before he managed to stand, Malja had Viper out and readied herself for a battle. A boy no older than Tommy rode in on a small but fast horse.

"It is you," he said, smiling at Owl.

Without taking her eyes from the boy, Malja said over her shoulder, "You know him?"

Owl waved Malja down from her fighting stance and rushed to the boy's side. "Sprint! You're alive!"

"I was about to say the same of you," Sprint said with a hearty laugh. His dark hair had been cut short and spiky so that it looked like a dangerous helmet at first. Owl remembered the day the boy had shorn his waist-length hair. He said it made him faster, and it earned him the name Sprint.

"I thought Queen Salia killed you all," Owl said.

"She tried, but we're the Order, by Kryssta. You think some half-wit Queen and a two-faced betrayer are going to get the best of us?"

"They killed Chief Master. And they said—"

"The Order is still here. We're in bad shape, I won't lie to you. All the Masters are gone except Master Kee. Only a handful of magicians and Guards survived. But we're still here. And by the looks of your friends, you've brought us some reinforcements."

Owl looked back at Malja, Tommy, and Fawbry. They made for a shabby bunch, but it would have to do. And despite a boy who refused to speak, or a man without a hand, or a woman ready to kill at the slightest provocation, for the first time, Owl felt a spark of hope in his heart.

 

 

 

Malja

 

 

The boy, Sprint, led them out of the forest and along the tree line. A vast open plain spread out before them. Owl called it the Great Field, and the name served it well. Nothing but wide swaths of grass as far as she could see.

The Order compound, what remained of it, stood like a blemish on this ocean of grass. Black smoke rose from various points along its gated walls. From the outside, the compound reminded Malja of the more fearful places she had come across in Corlin — the ones that built walls around the entire town, kept guard at all hours, and deeply mistrusted any strangers that came their way.

Fires smoldered, filling the air with a rich aroma. The main gate had been blasted open, the stench of magic surrounded it, and the ground had been churned up by a hundred horses. Bodies of man and beast were strewn about the rubble. Malja wondered if the first days after the Devastation had looked like this.

Among the few people still alive, two worked together to clear the dead away. They wore long, tan robes that hid their features, but Malja caught a glimpse of tattooed arms. They stopped long enough to watch Malja and her team pass by. Owl waved but the disheartened expressions the two wore stopped him from speaking. They ran a finger across the forehead and nodded when Owl and Fawbry returned the gesture.

"Up ahead," Sprint said, pointing to a crumbling structure built against the compound walls.

They pulled up to a hitching post and dismounted. Owl fussed with his clothing and combed his hair with his fingers. To Malja, he said, "Wait here. I'll be right back."

Malja watched him approach a heavy door with Sprint at his side. He hesitated, let out a shudder, and entered the building. She looked to Fawbry. "You know anything about what goes on in there?"

Fawbry raised an eyebrow. Malja knew this look too well now — an attempt to appear knowledgeable whenever Fawbry had no clue what he was talking about. "I think—"

"Forget it," she said. "Go help Tommy rub down the horses."

Fawbry stepped toward Malja to protest, or at least complain, when Tommy slapped a brush in his hand. The two had a good rapport and worked well together. She wondered if she should be concerned that Tommy showed no interest in Sprint — a boy close to his own age.

She walked away without looking back. There were more pressing problems, and she didn't want them to see the concern on her face.

First, she had to get her mind straight that Owl had been telling the truth all along — he was not a potential enemy. That also meant this queen was a real threat and that the Library — she didn't want to think further about that. Better to focus on more immediate concerns.

After letting that scout escape, Malja had kept an ear open for any indication of an attack. Soon Queen Salia would learn that not only was Malja nearby, but that the Order had not been entirely razed. Her army most likely marched toward them.

She looked around the shambles of the compound. The only thing not damaged was a statue of Moonlo, his gaunt face and stern eyes watching over his followers. In Moonlo's hand, the sculptor had carved the Book of Kryssta which Moonlo wrote, supposedly, after being visited by the brother god Kryssta. The statue stood in the center of a cracked fountain.

Everywhere else, debris and blood littered the ground. Five Guardians stood atop a ledge on the wall keeping watch. A robed woman stood amongst them — a magician, no doubt.

At the far end of the main courtyard, a young woman passed by carrying bandages and water. The moans of suffering rose in volume when she opened a door to a small building. It was a sorry mess.

At least Malja understood how to deal with all of this. Far better than having to deal with Tommy. No. Easier not better.

As she made her plans, her eyes grabbing every detail, Fawbry and Tommy finished with the horses. At length, Owl re-emerged from the building. He took a few steps and simply waved for the others to join him.

Malja's men waited for her to lead the way. Good. No matter what else, Tommy and Fawbry knew who to get behind in an unfamiliar situation.

Little light found its way inside the building. The damp, cool air carried that sour odor of magic that permeated everything. Even the walls stank of it.

Owl must have seen her wrinkle her nose. He said, "Please forgive the air if it's bad. The Order is first one of magicians, and they practice their abilities a lot. Or they did before all this."

"How do you stand it?" Malja asked.

"I don't even notice it," Owl said. He gestured toward a hall and led them up a staircase.

Malja had been inside many temples before — particularly those that followed Korstra. But she had never stepped foot inside a Kryssta temple before — didn't even know they had temples. In fact, she didn't realize that was the building's main purpose until she noticed the numerous small rooms on either side of the hall.

Each room was big enough to fit a single person in a seated position. Kryssta followers rarely congregated for a religious service. Prayer was always considered a private matter — sacred in its solitude. Though Malja never felt the need for religion, she thought she would prefer this type of prayer instead of the mass gatherings of the Korstra.

They climbed the stairs, and Owl pointed to an arched doorway. "Master Kee is in here. Thank Kryssta. It's a miracle he's still alive. Now, I've told him all that has happened to me and he has been very understanding. Please, give him your fullest respect."

Master Kee's room looked gigantic compared to the tiny prayer rooms. He had a small bed in one corner, a desk and chair next to it, and a wooden stool by an unadorned window. The green paint on the walls peeled away like flakes of skin.

The Master displayed surprising vitality when he sprang to his feet to welcome his guests. His arms, though wrinkled with age, still showed firm muscle. Malja suspected he could still break a few bones with a punch. Even his long, white hair appeared full of life — thick and flowing — despite the color.

"Welcome," he said, gesturing to the chair and bed. "Sit, please."

Malja took the chair, leaving the bed for the other three to squeeze in. She said, "We've come to—"

"No." Master Kee waved his index finger, his eyes as stern as the statue of Moonlo. "We won't begin this with posturing. We don't have that kind of time, and I hate those kinds of games."

Malja already liked the man. "Fine. Clearly, some of you survived Queen Salia's attack. Is the Library really in her possession?"

"Yes," Master Kee said and lowered to the stool. "She has the Twelve Books and she knows the Library building is just north of here."

"But she needs the thirteenth book, right? And then the building will give her great power."

"The building is just a structure. It's what's inside that gives the power."

"And what's inside?" Fawbry asked like a child caught up in a bedtime story.

"A rock — a boulder, really. The Stone of Antow. When the Devastation struck, it infused this massive rock with great magical energy. At first, the magic would shoot out in dangerous flares and pulses. Chief Master Antow took it upon the Order to serve mankind by watching the rock, making sure nobody got hurt, and to study it. It wasn't much, but he had hoped the people of the world would see this as a small apology for the failures of magicians."

"Hard to see how that's much of an apology. If the Order studied the Stone of Antow, and we know they did, then he was just pushing on in the way earlier magicians had done."

"Except these studies, decades later, led to the Twelve Books which detail how to control the rock's properties."

Owl added, "It was Chief Master Ginto who had the Library built around the rock."

"That's correct," Master Kee said, and Malja saw the pride slip across Owl's face. "And it was also Chief Master Ginto who had the Twelve Books written in code. He foresaw the days that would come when others would try to use the power of the Library for their own gains."

"And the thirteenth book," Owl said. "That has the answer to the code."

"I expect so."

Trying to sound casual, Malja asked, "What exactly can this rock do? I mean is it just magical power to enhance a magician's spells or does it do something on its own?"

Master Kee folded his arms and gazed out the window. "It can enhance a magician's power, certainly, but it has a far greater purpose. You may find this difficult to believe, but it can actually create a hole in our existence and through that hole, it can connect us with other worlds."

"I don't find that difficult to believe at all," Malja said. Fawbry and Tommy looked away, both snickering.

"Good," Master Kee went on, "because it's true. The same energies that caused the Devastation were thrown into this rock and are just waiting to be released. Magicians have tried over the years to get hold of its power, but we've always fought them off. Even the mad brothers Jarik and Callib attempted it once. I suspect seeing the rock is what spurned those two to hunt down every promise of portal magic they could find. But opening portals, though it takes an enormous amount of magical power, isn't the worst thing this rock can do."

Malja's gut hardened. "What else can it do?"

Master Kee didn't speak at first. His mouth moved as he continued to stare out the window. When he finally spoke, his voice sounded far away. "Losing control of a portal can cause a massive blast of power — the kind that caused the Devastation. But that blast left much of the world intact. More people died from falling buildings and being trampled in panics than from the magic. The blast itself was like a giant wave of air. A storm of epic proportions but still just a storm.

"This, however . . . if Queen Salia deciphers the Twelve Books, if she tries to use the power of the Library, and if she fails to control it, the result would make the Devastation look like an afternoon shower. There will be nothing left. No buildings, no forests, no animals, no people. We'll be as dead as the moon above."

Owl stood, his chest heaving with tension. "Then we've got to find that thirteenth book."

A knock at the door drew Master Kee from the window. With short, calm steps, he crossed the room, opened the door, and lowered his head to a young man. When the man left, Master Kee faced Malja and her team.

"Brother X and his army are approaching."

 

 

 

Owl

 

 

Through all his years of training — listening to Master Kee lecture, listening to Master Kee count reps, listening to Master Kee demand more effort — never had Owl heard such defeat in that old man's voice. The strong-bodied man aged before Owl's eyes. He even bent forward a little as if the weight of his words pressed against his back.

BOOK: The Way of the Sword and Gun
8.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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